Derek Walcott Collected Poems
Philoctete’s Wound as the Wounds of Slavery
Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a simile as, “An explicit comparison between two different things, actions, or feelings, using the words ‘as’ or ‘like’…” (Baldick 334). In his critically-acclaimed epic poem, Omeros, Derek Walcott uses similes to connect Philoctete’s shin wound to the sea as a life giver and a life taker, thereby linking it to the displacement of slaves, symbolizing Philoctete’s wound as the wounds of slavery. His lesion is healed when Ma Kilman picks a flower from their homeland for his medicine, signifying the return of their ancestors to their homeland.
Throughout Omeros, Walcott compares the wound on Philoctete’s shin to sea-creatures, which connects it to the ocean. In this poem, the ocean is a life giver and a life taker. It provides food and profit for St. Lucia in that the fisherman catch food to eat and sell, and it designates the Caribbean as a vacation location for tourists visiting via cruise ships. The people of St. Lucia are also able to trade via liners. It steals the life of Hector when he drives his van over the cliff on page 226, and it steals the lives of slaves who were brought to America via slave ships. Walcott writes, “Negro shacks / moved like a running wound, like the rusty anchor / that scabbed Philoctete’s shin,” the rusty anchor from the sea which took his freedom, and metaphorically, his life (Walcott 178). He is forced to work for Plunkett instead of for the sea, as he longed to do, just as slaves were taken by the sea to work for American slavers. Along with the metaphorical ending of lives by means of stolen freedom, “records suggest that until the 1750s one in five Africans on board ship died” (International Slavery Museum). The sea quite literally takes lives, as it did with Hector, as it did with slaves.
When Philoctete’s wound is first introduced, Walcott writes, “It has puckered like the corolla / of a sea-urchin” (Walcott 4). Connecting Philoctete’s wound to the displacement of slavery, the sea-urchin is a delicacy in the Caribbean; therefore they are commonly poached, just as people were poached from their homelands and devoured into American slavery (Jamaica Observer). Covered with a hard shell and spines that are painfully sharp, they sting when threatened (Gardner), so using a sea-urchin first to describe Philoctete’s wound, Walcott is symbolizing the resistance of slaves by fighting their captors. Per the Understanding Slavery Initiative, slaves from the Caribbean rebelled and ran away or fought colonial forces, even taking control of armies and islands. However, eventually they were defeated and captured and sold into slavery, displacing them from their homeland.
The next couple of times Walcott mentions Philoctete’s wound he writes, “The sore on his shin / still unhealed, like a radiant anemone” and “The itch in the sore / tingles like the tendrils of the anemone” (Walcott 9-19). This is a significant plunge from the sea-urchin comparison because anemones are “are soft-bodied, simple animals that remain primarily sedentary, resembling flowers in appearance” (Gardner). A noticeable shift in comparison, he is now symbolizing that after capture, slaves moved from fighting to submitting to slavers and colonialism. As more and more people were forced into slavery, slave owners resorted to increasingly cruel and inhumane methods to keep them from rebelling, which included whippings and murder. Understandably, slaves grew progressively more afraid to oppose their masters for fear of torture and death, so they grew more and more like an anemone—sedentary and simple. They also grew more and more like Philoctete’s shin—wounded.
When Philoctete is tending to his lesion with Vaseline, Walcott writes, “At night, when yards are asleep, and the broken line / of the surf hisses like Philo, ‘Bon Dieu, aie, waie, my sin / is this sore?’ the old plantains suffer and shine” (Walcott 235). This is symbolic of his wound representing the wounds of slavery and the regret of the people who allowed their brothers and sisters to be captured, sold into slavery, and displaced. It was also a shame of these people to adopt and allow the ways of the men who colonized their islands. They abandoned their people to slavery and their traditions and freedoms to the methods and manners of the colonists. Walcott refers to this regret and shame as a sin, and therefore something that is, or should be, punishable by suffering, like Philoctete’s wound.
Ma Kilman finds the flower that heals Philoctete’s wound by following ants, which Walcott reveals are her ancestors by writing, “ants had lent her / their language, the flower that withered on the floor” (Walcott 245). When she prepares the basin for Philoctete “he entered / his bath like a boy. The lime leaves leeched to his wet / knuckled spine like islands that cling to the basin / of the rusted Caribbean” (Walcott 247). She has finally found the medicine which will heal his wound, and Philoctete “could feel the putrescent shin / drain in the seethe like sucked marrow” (Walcott 247). By returning to her roots and ancestors, Ma Kilman healed the wounds of slavery, as depicted on Philoctete’s shin, as they no longer deny their ancestry, and “the corolla / closed its thorns like the sea-egg. What else did it cure” (Walcott 247)? Instead of trying to heal himself with modern medicine, Philoctete and Ma Kilman embrace and accept the ancestors’ traditions they have denied, and thus betrayed. It is a beautiful representation of their ancestors returning to their homeland.
In conclusion, Derek Walcott uses similes in Omeros to powerfully compare Philoctete’s wound to sea-creatures, thus connecting to the life giving and taking sea and representing the displacement of people from their homeland and forcing them into slavery. His wound is an embodiment of the wounds of slavery and is thus only healed when Ma Kilman and Philoctete embrace and accept the medicinal roots of their ancestry, therefore returning the denied and betrayed peoples back to their homelands.
Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 4th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
“Concerns raised in St Lucia about illegal harvesting of sea urchins.” n.d. Jamaica Observer.
“Life on board slave ships.” 2017. International Slavery Museum. National Museums Liverpool.
Gardner, Keri. “Sea Anemones vs. Sea Urchins.” n.d. Mom.me.
“Resistance and Rebellion.” 2011. Understanding Slavery Initiative.
Analysis of Derek Walcott’s ‘The Almond Trees’
Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Almond Trees’ expresses the overwhelming power of colonial memory and the brutality of the colonial enterprise. Through his central image of “coppery, twisted, sea-almond trees”, Walcott justifies the critic Mark McWatt’s view that Walcott is “distanced by vocation, by a habit of perception” as he shows the intensity of his personal struggle with the dualities of his character through the persistent memory of the colonial past. Through simply observing a scene on a beach, the physical juxtaposition of the sunbathers (“girls toasting their flesh”) with the “sea-almond trees” leads Walcott to consider the not “visible history” of the situation – the consequence of “a habit of perception.”
The almond trees serve as an extended metaphor to represent the brutality of the colonial past. Slavery, violence and torture characterise the focus of the majority of the poem although, somewhat characteristically of Walcott, this becomes more ambiguous and possibly hopeful in the “metamorphosis” at the end of the poem. Walcott is generally implicit throughout ‘The Almond Trees’ and uses his vivid imagery and metaphors to create a sense of the intense emotion instead of explicit reference to the postcolonial mindset. The single line verse, “Aged trees and oiled limbs share a common colour!” is an exception to this delicacy, as it has been unappreciated by critics who regard it an unnecessarily explicit in furthering the metaphorical link between the sunbathers and trees. However, as the line is punctuated by an exclamation-mark, it suggests this may not be an example of overly embellished writing but a possible humorous interjection, possibly to reduce the weight of the severe tone before the powerful images of slavery in the subsequent stanza.
The opening of the poem develops the postcolonial theme. “There’s nothing here” is deeply ironic and reflects the wit of Walcott because of the poignancy of the poem that follows and the implicit mockery of such an absurd view that was held by the original colonialists. The absence of buildings, books and social structures in Africa at the time of colonialist arrival led to the ‘Eurocentric’ perception of the native African people as primitive and uncivilised. As the poem first appeared in Walcott’s collection The Castaway in the 1960s, the issues surrounding decolonisation and the problems of postcolonialism were contemporary. Similarly, the emergence of the ‘Black Power’ movement at this time can justify the strong post- and anti-colonial tone of the poem as well as the strong sense of Afro-Caribbean identity in lines such as “stripped of their name / for Greek or Roman tags.”
The consistent undertone of violence in the poem may also be a product of the broader social context of the poem. The image of “forked limbs” has immediate connotations of brutality with the morbid sense of dismembered “limbs” conjuring thoughts of the aftermath of battle and possibly a satanic impression from “forked”. The use of “toasting their flesh” develops the morbid image of “forked limbs” as “flesh” suggests a rawness and open wounds. The use of “toasting” is unusual because of its incongruity. Some interpretations could see the alternative of ‘roasting’ as too explicit in developing the raw flesh and animalistic metaphor. Alternatively, “toasting” could be seen as a distinctly Western metaphor in the celebratory sense of ‘a toast’ or the sense of cooking which could further emphasise Walcott’s criticism of colonialism. The image of flesh as food is developed by a string of images which, through the link to cannibalism, is most horrific. This is done by combing the image of “forked” with “toasting their flesh” and further by “it’ll sear a pale skin copper” (in which sear has connotations of branding livestock) and “they’re cured” which, although ambiguous, can be interpreted in the sense of curing meat. Although Walcott makes no explicit reference to colonialism in these images, the underlying tone of morbidity and brutality they create is almost inevitably related to the brutal treatment of Africans in the Caribbean (as well as the direct description of the impact of the sun on the almond trees). These images of raw ‘flesh’, connotations of food and putrefaction are repeated in other poems such as the references in ‘Ruins of a Great House’ to “the leprosy of Empire” and “ulcerous crime”.
The consistent undertone of brutality in the subtle connotations of almost every adjective (such as “twisting”, “writhing”, “singed”, “sear” and “fierce acetylene air”) develops the theme of “no visible history.” These implicit descriptions and the use of the almond tree metaphor reflect that although the coast has few remaining symbols of colonialism, the memory remains overwhelming. This relates to the opening stanza in which refers to the “cold churning ocean, the Atlantic” as having “no visible history” but embodying the foundations of colonialism through the imperial navies and slave ships. The memory, which is also central to much of Walcott’s other poetry (such as in ‘Ruins of a Great House” where he states “In memory now, by every ulcerous crime”), becomes fundamental to the conclusion of the poem. “One sunburnt body now acknowledges / That past and its own metamorphosis” which brings an end to the violence and brutality of the poem.
Walcott’s use of abstract images and details is a characteristic device. The reference to “their leaves’ broad dialect a coarse, / enduring sound” is an example of the fluid transition between the natural and the human in the poem. It also shows the vivid imagery developed by Walcott which instead of being a discursive, unlike some other postcolonial pieces (such as R. S. Thomas’ poem ‘Welsh Landscape’ where he clearly expresses “To live in Wales is to be conscious / At dusk of the spilled blood”), Walcott is descriptive. He develops tone and emotion through powerful description such as “they were lashed / raw by wind, washed / out with salt and fire-dried”. The various layers of these images such as the biblical connotations of “lashed” and the intense sensory-physical image of being “washed / out with salt” emphasises the intensity of personal emotion and internalised feeling of the postcolonial setting in contrast to political or social comment in other works.
Walcott develops a sense of isolation in the poem as his images and perspective seems distanced and withdrawn. His reflections come from physically distanced observations of others who prompt memory and thought but not self-identification. In the most poignant image of the poem – “Their grief / howls seaward through charred, ravaged holes.” – the poet is notably distanced from the people and the memories he reflects upon with the distinctive use of “their”. Although a biographical interpretation may show that while writing the collection The Castaway (within which ‘The Almond Trees’ was first published) Walcott conveys a sense of his isolation from society, his distance in this poem could also be seen as the distance of the memory and a disjointed history. The poet is not lamenting his own isolation and it would be difficult to apply such an interpretation. However, through his distance he could be emphasising his theme of there being “no visible history.” Although the images seem removed, the emotion remains intense and violent, which may suggest that Walcott sees his perception and memory, as with other Afro-Caribbeans, removed from the conventional ‘Western’ mode of physical, visible memory.
The chilling image of “Their grief / howls seaward through charred, ravaged holes” is emphasised by the lineation and its separation in to a separate stanza. As a separate stanza, the image is given strength and a finality which only makes it more forceful. In addition, the separation of “Their grief” on a single line makes these words in particular emphatic as the disjointing of the form and rhythm caused by the short line-break almost reflects the difficulty of speech in heightened emotion. The onomatopoeic effect of “howls” (which resonates with the breadth of sounds in the word and the sharp ‘s’ ending) also has animalistic connotations which develops the natural imagery of the poem by further aligning symbolic importance to natural phenomena. The use of “charred, ravaged holes” encapsulates all of the central images in the poem such as the sense of fire, heat, suffering, torture and brutality. As a conclusion to the poem, Walcott’s final impression of the colonial memory could have been harrowing. However, the final stanza ends the poem with duality, a device he often employs.
Dualities are central to this poem, as with most of Walcott’s poetry. In addition to the central duality of the fluid metaphor of the trees and the colonial memory, Walcott uses a range of images that emphasise the tension between the past and present. The contrast between the classical images of “brown daphnes” and the “sacred grove” (which produces an immediate sense of the affinity towards nature of some native African tribes like the “Evil Forest” of the Ibo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) shows the poet’s sense of divided identity. He sees the brutality of the colonial past but uses the culture of those he condemns to express the torture of it. Walcott’s juxtaposition of the two cultures can be interpreted as showing the intense conflict between these different identities and the horrific personal struggles caused by colonialism.
However, Walcott himself has emphasised the importance of universality in his poetry (just as he reflects in ‘Ruins of a Great House’ that “all in compassion ends”). Therefore, the dualities between man and nature in the central metaphor and the brutality of the colonial memory allow Walcott to develop his universal perspective in showing the “grove grieves in silence, like parental love.” This final image is ambiguous but the overriding sense must be positive. The personification of the natural surroundings (“within the bent arms of this grove”) suggests a comfort and godly force overcoming the brutality that characterises the majority of the poem. However, the connotations of “grieving in silence” undermine this by suggesting that the postcolonial memory is persistent. The control and slowing of the rhythm in the final line which separates “like parental love” could suggest a sense of lament in which the words could be read as sighing and remorseful. Equally, they could be interpreted as full of pride and hope and slowed to a powerful exclamatory rhythm. The alliteration and consonance of the ‘l’ sound is soft and the echoing of the monosyllabic “like” and “love” suggests a more hopeful tone in which Walcott may be suggesting that the colonial past is slowly forgotten and the “brown daphnes” have become closer to the Caribbean. The significant shift in tone in the final stanza from the horrific penultimate stanza further implies the positive intentions of this final image.
Walcott, and in particular ‘The Almond Trees’, does not fit a ‘typical’ genre of the postcolonial (if something such could exist). In the earliest postcolonial texts such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, written at a time and by a man with a biography not too dissimilar to Walcott (in terms of education and influence), the presentation of the postcolonial is extremely different to that in ‘The Almond Trees’. Whereas Achebe laments the loss of culture and to some extent the violent disintegration of the Ibo way of life, Walcott presents a greater sense of the brutality colonial history. Whereas Achebe uses a simple prose (despite his Western education) and descriptive narrative to reflect the vernacular, oral tradition, Walcott embraces the Western culture with his use of classical images and embellished verse in ‘The Almond Trees’. Here he shows that fundamentally he is a literary artist. Unlike some postcolonial and post-post-colonial traditions, Walcott does not consider the sense of dislocation, hybridity or double consciousness (so apparent in different types of literary expression to Walcott) such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Although Walcott is witty, sharp and perceptive (shown in his subversion of the theme of “no visible history” and his opening that “there’s nothing here”), he is not primarily humorous, nor is his work explicitly postcolonial in condemnation. However, as with many other postcolonial texts, he develops the theme of universality in ‘The Almond Trees’ by juxtaposing history and memory to show a “metamorphosis” of Caribbean identity. Just as Dharker concludes explicitly, “look into its outcast eyes / and recognise it as your own” and Achebe reflects, “what is good among one people is an abomination among others” so Walcott ends, more subtly the need to “acknowledge[ ] / that past” and understand a shared origin “like parental love.”
Technique, Theme, and Autobiography: Analysis of “A City’s Death by Fire”
The poem “A City’s Death by Fire” by Derek Walcott is a semi-autobiographical poem, a recollection of the Great Fire of 1948 in Central Castries (the capital and largest city of St. Lucia). The Great Fire attacked three quarters of the town and left more than 2,000 people homeless. This cataclysmic event affected Walcott’s life, because he was born in Central Castries. Walcott first describes the situation of the city with helplessness and despair, but then realizes that one should not lose faith after the physical world has failed to survive. Through this poem, Walcott conveys his theme that faith should not be help in the man-made world, but rather be held in the immunity of nature through the use of figurative language, diction, and imagery, and juxtaposition.
Throughout the poem, Walcott utilizes figurative language in order to reflect the despair and demolition caused by the Great Fire of 1948. The speaker talks about the “faiths that were snapped like a wire” as he felt betrayed by the false immunity that he thought existed in the city buildings. This simile expresses that abrupt loss of hope that Walcott had felt from the fire. He also mentions the situation under which the poem was written “under a candles eye that smoked in tears”. Although this provides an understanding of what was literally left from the fire, the expression that the candle’s eye smoked in tears also reflects the sorrow and despair felt by the residents. The amount of havoc from the fire is encapsulated in the title itself: “A City’s Death by Fire”. The city is personified as it is said to have the ability to die. Although a city, a non living organism, cannot literally die, the personification represents what is literally and emotionally left of the town. The city is emotionally dead due to the great amount of hope that was lost from everyone after the fire. Because all the faith was lost within the residents, there is a loss of life in the city.
Walcott then develops the idea of physical death of the city by describing the physical destruction caused by the fire. During his recollection of walking through the havoc, he vividly describes the “levelled” buildings, “rubbled” ground, and “torn” houses that were left destroyed from the fire. His rich use of concrete diction effectively portrays the dark and sorrowful image of the city. His diction to describe the city reveals the severity of the amount of demolition that the fire had left the residents.
In addition to describing the emotional effects of the fire through literary devices and the literal demolition through diction, Walcott also communicates the fire’s lack of impact on nature through his extensive use of imagery. He begins the poem by referring to the fire storm as the “hot gospeller”. This metaphorical comparison suggests that the fire spread as quick as a preacher would spread the gospel. The fire spread quick and destroyed the “wooden world”, but it left the “churched sky” without a harm. This suggests that the sky was like the untouchable church and was not affected by the fire. Religious imagery continues to pervade the poem as the hills are compared to “flocks of faith”. This comparison suggests that the hills are also left untouched by the fire just as the sky was. The religious imagery throughout the poem suggests that the fire was almost a biblical catastrophe, but also relaying an apparent message about a sense of faith echoing in the perseverance of nature.
Throughout the poem, Walcott highlights the juxtaposition between the perseverance of the natural world and the destruction of the “wooden” man-made world. He does this by creating a sharp contrast between the immune natural world and the destroyed man-made world. The man-made world is described with a pessimistic tone when he describes the sorrowful destruction from the fire through his use of concrete diction and figurative language. Walcott loses his trust in the man-made world due to how unreliable the buildings were during the firestorm. This is evident when he expresses that he is “shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar”. The simile compares the walls to liars as they have failed to stand strong like the speaker thought it would, therefore, expressing his loss of trust. On the other hand, the natural world is described with an encouraged tone when he speaks about the preserved nature through his religious imagery. The religious implications to the sky and the hills introduces the speaker’s realization of the renewal of his faith. The juxtaposition exposes the realization that the speaker has. He expresses through the juxtaposition that he mistakenly lost faith after the man-made world was destroyed. Moreover, when he notices the perseverance of the hills and sky, he realizes that he should not lose faith due to the destroyed city, because the preservation of nature even after the fire symbolized the “baptism by fire”. The fire was no longer seen as destroying the city, but rather purging the city. The fire purified and renewed the city, just as a Christian baptism symbolises. It removed the vulnerable and fraudulent man-made world and created hope for the rebirth of the city. The fire markes a new beginning of a new founded faith that is not based on the man-made things, but the nature that was preserved.
The semi-autobiographical poem reflects Walcott’s life after the Great Fire of 1948. It reflects how Walcott has lost faith from the fire’s destruction, but then was restored. He expresses his initial feeling of true sorrow and hopelessness through his rich use of figurative language, and uses his concrete diction to express the severity of the death of the city. However, there is a shift in the poem, where the speaker shifts from talking about the destruction of the city to renewal of a pure city. He shifts from hopelessness to faith being restored, because he realizes that the fire just markes a new beginning of a new-found faith.